[Asharq Al-Awsat] What has the Israel-Syria Peace Society achieved since its inception?
[Liel] We have held 12 meetings until now and made good progress in reaching understandings about the bases of peace between Israel and Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are these bases?
[Liel] Withdrawal from the territory Israel occupied in 1967 in return for security guarantees to the two sides and the establishment of comprehensive peace. Because of the wide-scale opposition in Israel to withdrawal from the Golan, we agreed on a proposal to establish a national park in the western one-third of the Golan Heights, which the Israelis could enter without an entry permit (just as the Israelis enter Egypt’s Sham al-Sheikh and Taba). We also agreed to keep the present Israeli economic projects in the Golan (premium wine producing facilities, farms, and so forth) as foreign investments whose owners would continue to manage as Syrian projects for 5-15 years from the signing of a peace agreement. Syrian citizens would not go back to live in this one-third area of the Golan, but it would be under complete Syrian sovereignty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the positions of the two governments on these talks? How can you be sure that the Syrian Government is behind these talks and how can you convince us that the Israeli Government is behind you in these talks?
[Liel] We cannot say that they are talks between two governments. However, it is clear that I speak with important figures in Syrian government institutions. In Israel, these talks began under the government of Ariel Sharon in coordination with the Foreign Ministry. Everything I do takes place with their knowledge.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did Sharon personally know?
[Liel] He definitely knew. I personally did not talk with him about the matter. But when I used to inform the Foreign Ministry, they informed him, also. I served as the director general of the Foreign Ministry. I know how such things are communicated. I know that Sharon knew about it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did Olmert, the current prime minister, know and does he know today?
[Liel] At that time, he did not know because he was the minister of Trade and Industry in the Sharon government, but he definitely knows today. He realizes that matters are serious, and he could no longer ignore them. For this reason, we saw him stating a few days ago that he did not see anything wrong in resuming the negotiations with Syria. He hinted that there are contacts with Damascus.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How are these talks conducted, where, and on what basis?
[Liel] First, the talks took place in Europe and then in the United States. They took place between people interested in peace between the two countries and peoples. They took place as a dialogue between two people or within the framework of a broader dialogue attended by others. Meetings on another level took place, such as the forum held in Washington recently, which Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad Mustafa and I attended.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I understood from you that the purpose of your visit to the United States was mainly to create an American lobby to exert pressure for the resumption of the negotiations between Israel and Syria. Does this mean that you have reached the conviction that Washington was preventing the Israeli Government from resuming these negotiations?
[Liel] Not all Washington, but the administration of President Bush is the one preventing Israel from resuming the negotiations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is Israel no longer an independent state?
[Liel] In international relations, there are mechanisms and interests that make one appear subordinate to the other in some situations. Olmert is not interested in angering President Bush. But many forces in the Democratic and Republican Parties support our position about the need to resume the negotiations and strongly criticize Bush’s policy on this matter. I am confident that when Bush leaves the White House on 20 January 2009, this danger will end, Washington will give the green light, and the negotiations between Israel and Syria will resume within four months after the new American president takes office.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will these negotiations result in an agreement, in your opinion?
[Liel] Definitely. I know that 85 percent of the issues have been agreed upon between all the Israeli governments that preceded the Sharon and Olmert governments and Syria. The remaining issues do not need more than six months to settle. If the negotiations resume, according to my estimates, they will end with a comprehensive and permanent peace between the two countries by the end of 2009.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was the purpose of your visit to the United States to prepare for that period? Did you meet with American presidential candidates?
[Liel] Yes, I met with officials in the election campaigns of the three presidential candidates and had a positive response. To ensure that they do not undermine these efforts, we are holding contacts from now with senior career officials of the US Administration who will remain in their jobs when the President leaves. There is need to explain our efforts to them so they would not constitute an obstacle to us in the future. We want to have a broad lobby in the United States that supports Israeli-Syrian negotiations before President Bush ends his term and not to begin our work after he leaves.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have they not placed conditions on Syria, such as leaving the axis of evil, lifting its hands off Lebanon, and so forth?
[Liel] It is clear that the Americans are debating many aspects of Syrian policy, but we are also debating these aspects with them. The matters they raise as obstacles are in our view caused by the conflict. If Israel and Syria reach a peace agreement, these obstacles will no longer exist.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Give us an example. The Americans are attacking Syria for its position on the Lebanese issue. Do you defend Syria’s position in your meetings with them?
[Liel] No. We tell them that we understand the importance of their position on the Lebanese issue. In the United States, there is a strong and influential Lebanese lobby. At the same time, we tell them that Israeli-Syrian peace, in itself, would impose new rules in the region. If Syria signed a peace agreement with Israel, it would be illogical for it to ally itself with those who say day and night that they want to destroy Israel, like Iran, Hezbollah, or Hamas. It would be illogical for Syria to supply these organizations with weapons. Syria is an independent state that has interests. There is no ideological link between it and Iran. Therefore, things will change in the region when peace is achieved. This would be in the interest of the West, the interest of all the peoples of the region, and most importantly, the interest of the Israeli and Syrian peoples.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is one of your demands is that Syria break off its relations with Iran?
[Liel] It is illogical to ask an independent state to break off its relations with a friendly country. Strong economic, political, and military relations exist between Syria and Iran. What we can demand–and this is legitimate and acceptable in all international peace agreements–is that these relations should not negatively affect or contradict the objectives of a peace agreement. This is unquestionable.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Going back to Israel. A big lobby among politicians and the military supports peace with Syria. But as you know, the majority of the Israelis stated in several opinion polls that they do not support withdrawal from the Golan even in return for peace.
[Liel] Experience has taught us that the moment the official leadership embarks on peace negotiations, the number of opponents would immediately drop by 10 to 15percent. As the negotiations continue, a growing support mechanism develops, particularly if we knew how to bring innovative and creative proposals to reassure the public about its future and convince it of the sincere intentions. For example, the proposal to establish a national park will help the Israelis, including the Golan settlers, to accept withdrawal. Do not forget that many respected political and military figures support such peace. Many ministers, including Defense Minister Ehud Baraq, Army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and many members of the current general staff also support peace. This is in addition to former army chiefs of staff, such as Amnon Lipkin Shahak and Moshe Ya’alon; the former heads of the military intelligence branch, Uri Sagi, Aharon Ze’eviFarkash, and Amos Yadlin; the former Deputy Chief of Staff, Moshe Kaplinsky;the former Shabak (general intelligence service) chief and strategic affairs minister, Ami Ayalon; the former heads of the national security council, Giyora Island and Uzi Dayan; the former head of the Mossad (external intelligence service), Ya’qov Peri; and others support it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is apprehension, particularly among the Palestinians, that giving preference to the Syrian track over the Palestinian track would undermine the Palestinian issue and would take place at its expense. What is your opinion about this?
[Liel] We did not come to replace the Palestinian track. Israel needs peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians. However, we say that we prefer peace with Syria, first, because we think that negotiations with Syria are possible and did not need much effort, because most of the work has been done, and second, because we think that peace with the Palestinians today is unrealistic. There is a split between Hamas and Fatah, and there is a coup in Gaza, which has exacerbated the situation. There are burning issues the present government cannot resolve now, such as the issues of Jerusalem, the refugees, and the borders. These are very difficult issues. It makes no sense for us to wait and waste an available opportunity. For four years, President Bashar al-Assad has been proposing to hold unconditional negotiations with Israel to achieve comprehensive and just peace. Is it sensible for us to reject his proposal? Furthermore, I think that peace with Syria will make it easier to achieve peace with the Palestinians, because Hamas will lose much of its power and influence, and the forces of extremism will not be able easily to sabotage such an agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you trust President Bashar al-Assad and believe in his sincerity in proposing a peace initiative with Israel?
[Liel] Yes, I trust him and believe him. He wants peace and prosperity for his people. I know that he has opponents in Syria, but he is strongly maintaining his course.